The House impeachment inquiry has shown just how deeply America’s politics and foreign policy have been consumed by Russian misinformation, with accusations from Democrats and Republicans alike that the other side is embracing conspiracy theories, peddling fake news or spreading dangerous hoaxes in ways that advance Moscow’s interests.
So it was striking on Thursday to see the woman who spent two-and-a-half years as Donald Trump’s top expert on Russia bluntly tell the House impeachment investigators that she intended to lead them to the truth. “I take great pride in the fact that I am a nonpartisan foreign policy expert,” Fiona Hill said during her opening remarks. “I have no interest in advancing the outcome of your inquiry in any particular direction, except toward the truth.”
An English immigrant who served the U.S. government under former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and became President Donald Trump’s senior Europe and Eurasia adviser on the National Security Council, Hill told the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday that her primary duty as a bureaucrat has always been to advance America’s policy priorities abroad.
But during her hours-long testimony, Hill squared off with key Republicans over what she said was the clear truth at the heart of the matter before them.
Her opening remarks set out to clarify from the start that she believes it was Russia, not Ukraine, who attempted to alter the results of 2016 elections in the United States, contrary to a theory that has been pushed by Rep. Devin Nunes, the GOP lead of the Committee, during the impeachment probe.
“I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016,” Hill said in her statement, in reference to earlier remarks Nunes had made in previous hearings. “These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes.”
Nunes, for his part, started his rebuke of that opening statement before she even started making it. “I [would] like to take a quick moment on an assertion Miss Hill made in the statement that she submitted to this committee,” he said. “It is entirely possible for two separate nations to engage in election meddling at the same time,” he said.
Nunes later pressed Hill on the unsubstantiated theory, and why she felt it was concerning for the President to act on concerns he had about election meddling.
“My point, Mr Nunes, is that we at the National Security Council were not told either by the President directly or through Ambassador Bolton that we were to be focused on these issues as a matter of U.S . foreign policy toward Ukraine,” she said. “In fact, I was given a directive on July 10 by Ambassador Bolton very clearly to stay out of domestic politics.”
Nunes was not the only Republican who tried to pick apart Hill’s testimony and was met with a focused, informed response that ended up carrying the ball for the Democrats. When GOP Counsel Steve Castor asked why she had said during closed testimony that she was upset with Ambassador Gordon Sondland, she admitted she shared a few “testy encounters” with him because he had not been coordinating with her — then a top advisor — and her colleagues on U.S-Ukraine policy.
“I hate to say it but often when women show anger, it’s not fully appreciated. It’s often pushed on to emotional issues, perhaps, or deflected on to other people. What I was angry about was that he wasn’t coordinating with us,” she said.
But the reason she was left out of certain exchanges, she says she later learned, is that the she and Sondland were working towards separate goals: “He was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy, and those two things had just diverged,” she said.
She said Sondland felt the National Security Council was always try to “block him,” when in fact, she says, it was trying to “block us from straying into domestic or personal politics.”
“I did say to him, Ambassador Sondland, Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up. And here we are.”
-With reporting by Krista Mahr and Brian Bennett from Washington